We had the first meeting for some time of the Doctors Support Network yesterday. This is a self help group for doctors who have mental health problems. I am sure that most of the public finds it difficult to understand that doctors too get ill. It took me some time to come to terms with it as well. When I was first ill with manic depression, I was convinced that 'they' were lying to me. After all everyone knows that doctors don't get ill - do they? It wasn't until I was in a ward with 20 other doctors and health care workers that the penny finally dropped, that yes, doctors do get ill, just as much as anyone else.
Interestingly, we had exactly the same response from the medical profession - who told us ten years ago 'good luck with your group, but I am sure you will find there is no need for it.' Ten years later and we are still going.
My bug bear in all of this has been the GMC. The General Medical Council who set the agenda of how to deal with sick doctors. Their approach is medieval. A doctor is literally brought before a tribunal and 'charged' with the 'crime' of being unwell and consequently unfit to work. If found 'guilty' their registration is suspended or conditions placed on it. This makes it impossible to work either in the present or in the future as they must tell all potential employers that they have been investigation by the GMC and have restrictions on their practice.
Most of you are thinking - that sounds fine and reasonable. And yes, sick doctors should not work. However if 'sick' and 'well' are decided by an institution such as the GMC that acts as judge jury and executioner at a tribunal or court in which a doctor can not even present evidence or medical reports in their defence, this will discourage doctors from seeking treatment before their health problems seriously affect with their practice. A significant number of doctors with health problems only come to light when their suicide attempt fails. On the other hand doctors succeed in killing themselves at a rate of one a week.
Does this matter? are doctors a specially priviledged group that should be treated whilst the rest of the population suffer in silence? Not at all, but whilst doctors' own health, mental and physical, is ignored and the attitudes that prevail within the profession are akin to 'never did me any harm' 'illness is shameful' 'if you can't cope, then you shouldn't have decided to be a doctor' and 'we worked far harder in our day' then this attitude will be passed onto patients and patients will be treated with the same disrespect with which doctors treat themselves and their colleagues.
The reason that ten years after my last 'breakdown' I am concerned with doctors health is that i believe those attitudes are passed on to patients. Just as I am concerned that doctors learn to manage health, rather than treat disease, their own and other peoples', I am also concerned that teachers respect education, and enjoy learning and that police respect and abide by the law and that accountants are numerate and honest and so on. I have a meeting with the GMC in October, I hope that finally after ten years they will listen to reason and appreciate that no one wants sick doctors to work, but when well have something special to offer their patients. Moreover whilst the GMC adopts a punitive approach to health, then it will continue to be driven underground.
In the meantime, don't miss my five minutes of fame on Tuesday, BBC 2 at 9pm - Part 2 of the Stephen Fry documentary, 'The secret life of the manic depressive'
Copyright (c) Dr. Liz Miller